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Learning Navajo language helps students connect to their culture

teacher and students in a Navajo language class at ASU
April 17, 2014

Navajo is not only a language that may be learned through classes at Arizona State University, it’s a way for students to reconnect to their culture.

“Language is one key thing. You can still be Navajo without knowing the language but there are a lot of teachings, like songs and ceremonies, that can’t be sung in English. It wouldn’t make sense and it wouldn’t be the same,” said Elijah Allan, an ASU senior majoring in conservation biology and geology with a minor in American Indian Studies.

Teaching classes in Navajo is also helping to revitalize what is now classified as a dying language, said Jolyana Begay, an American Indian Studies instructor who teaches beginner and intermediate Navajo classes.

“I really feel that it is my duty, my role as a speaker of the language, to ensure its existence and teach to our future generations. It makes me happy that students take a very strong interest in the language,” Begay said.

Freshman Cora Tso decided to grow closer to her culture by taking Navajo classes. She would like to see more Navajo youth embrace their language and learn how it relates to the traditional way of life. Tso, who grew up in Page, came to the realization of what it meant to master the language after learning about the history of the Navajo people and what her ancestors and grandparents have experienced.

“Young people don’t realize that their culture and their language are dying. I learned about the importance of clans, traditions and customs growing up. I knew it was important,” Tso said. “I feel it’s a personal duty to myself and to my future children to keep the language going so they can know the importance of what it is to be Navajo.”

Learning the language that belongs to them

Classroom sessions focus on reading, writing and speaking the indigenous language. Interspersed among the lessons are discussions about the culture, focusing on topics such as the importance of clans and what livestock means to the Navajo people.

“We’re fortunate to provide opportunities that allow students to learn the language that belongs to them,” said Begay, whose clans are Red Running into the Water People, Black Streak Wood People, Red Bottom Cheek People and Giant People of the Red Running in the Water People. “Navajo is a very descriptive language that is verb-based. It sounds a lot like poetry.”

Allan realized he wanted to learn more about his language and his culture while he was enlisted in the U.S. Army, and fellow soldiers would ask about his heritage. At times, he didn’t have an answer. He also worked with the Navajo Nation Emergency Medical Services, where knowing the language can help in treating those whose only language is Navajo.

That led him to the realization that he had missed out on cultural aspects of his tribe when he was growing up on the Navajo Reservation. Allan’s mother was fluent in Navajo, but didn’t teach it to her children, perhaps because of what she experienced during boarding school, said Allan, who went to school in Tuba City and Kayenta, and is from Shonto and Toligai on the Navajo Nation. His clans are Salt Clan, Caucasian People and Bitterwater.

“They were physically abused and punished for talking the language,” Allan said. “Language is a big part of our society and culture, and it makes your community stronger. It shows that people take pride in who they are.”

Difficult language, yet a reminder of home

Classes are structured in a manner that allows students to interact as much as possible in a language that is not easy to master.

The Navajo language is a very difficult language to learn. Students need to learn to use muscles that are not used in English. The best way to learn is to try to speak,” Begay said. “The Navajo language has diacritical markings, such as high tones, nasal sounds and glottalized consonants. It takes practice.”

Lab time spent outside of class consists of interacting in Navajo through conversations with elders, speaking during ceremonies at home or talking with fluent speakers on campus.

“It’s hard to teach my tongue to say the different vowel sounds and symbols,” said Tso, whose clans are Reed People, Black-Streaked Wood, Bitterwater and Red House. “You need to interact with others to know that you are saying it right.”

Navajo class also gives many students a welcome reminder of home.

“Many of the students sometimes begin to feel homesick after moving from the reservation to ASU. They miss their grandmothers. They miss the sound of the language,” Begay said.

Allan, a Barrett Honors College student, hopes to use his language skills in his career, as he plans to work with Native people and be a voice for them, especially when it comes to teachings about the environment and people’s relationship with the land.

Tso plans to help her people as she works toward a dual degree in American Indian Studies and political science. A Barrett Honors College student and Gates Millennial scholar, she plans to attend law school and learn Indian law, eventually working for the tribe.

“I don’t see many people talking about language preservation or cultural restoration. More students are working in the present. I think we’re all trying to do our best to work with the world we’ve been born into,” Tso said.